Burke: Voice Paper 1

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Lost in Translation: The Loss of Voice through an Intermediary

 As we continue to move deeper into the course of this 360 program, it has become clear to me that subjects I once thought simple are, in reality, exceeding complex. One of the most notable is the word that remains in the title of our class and the core of our discussion: voice. Exploring these complexities and recalling the many different types of voice we’ve studied, I’ve determined that, like language, there are different dialects in voice. Each person’s or groups voice differs based upon factors such as age class and culture. And, just like language, not everybody can understand each other’s voice. With this in mind, I arrived at a complicated question: does voice lose its power when it can’t be universally understood? The texts and programs that I will be examining in this paper explore the attempt to bridge this understanding gap through the use of “translation”. This translation then serves to make each group’s voice accessible to the others. Problematically however, during this process of translation, the original integrity of the expressed voice can potentially be lost, or altered beyond recognition. 

            Alison Cook Sather’s article “Sound, Presence and Power: ‘Student Voice’ in Educational Research and Reform” explores the importance of students having “a legitimate perspective and opinion, being present and taking part and/or having an active role ‘in decisions about and implementation of educational policies and practice” (362). Additionally, it posits that teachers have the critical role of listening and inviting this “student voice” into the classroom. While not explicitly mentioned in the article, Cook-Sather’s theory on “student voice” has been put into practice through the establishment of the Teaching Learning Initiative (TLI) at Bryn Mawr College, a program run by Cook-Sather herself. At the core of this program, which I am participating in this semester, is the idea that student voice has a critically important role in the classroom. As a student consultant, I have been paired with a professor whose class I visit each week. Acting primarily and an observer in the classroom, I evaluate the professor’s pedagogical practices, and later we discuss my thoughts and suggestions.

Stepping outside from my own participation in the program, TLI undoubtedly provides a valuable forum and avenue for student voice in the classroom. However, what I’d like to problematize here is the need for a translator to exercise student voice. As student consultants are not truly part of the class, their presence undermines the students’ ability to discuss directly with the professor about his or her pedagogical practices. While members of the class are encouraged to talk to the student consultant about their own views and suggestions, I’ve been told that these instances are few and far between. The presence of these specially trained students is a physical reminder to the class that while student voice is valued, it is valued more so from and/or through a particular individual. In her article, Cook-Sather picks up on the possibility of this issue. By distilling “student voice” into the voice of an individual classroom representative, the program could “run the risk of overlooking essential differences among students, their perspectives, and their needs” (Cook-Sather 368). The student’s role as intermediary unintentionally encompasses student voice as a “uniform and united entity” and thus renders the potential change less effective by failing to recognize the message of each individual student “voice” (Cook-Sather 368).

Our recent trip into the city brought to my attention another example of these voice intermediaries. The Mural Arts program functions as a translator working to bridge the gaps between the different languages of voice present in Philadelphia street art. During our outing, the stark contrast that I saw between the style of the street art graffiti and the murals served as a vivid physical demonstration of the differences in voice represented by each. While both used to convey as message of some sort, murals, it seemed, were the more socially acceptable art forms – demonstrated by our tour guide Jerry’s pride in the fact that “no one grafittis on these murals!”. However, it was clear that Mural Arts made an effort to involve “community voice” by meeting with representatives of the community to decide on its design. While it is evident from each piece’s content that the murals were created in alignment with the history and values of the community, if they were truly created by and for the neighborhood, it is likely these homages would appear more similar to the art that was present from the beginning – graffiti. However, in an attempt to make the art’s “meaning” more accessible to tourists and visitors from outside the neighborhood, they were passed through Mural Arts, which acted as a translator. In the process of translating, or attempting to translate, some of the ideas expressed in street art into the more accessible form of murals, the authenticity of expression in the form of graffiti is lost. While community members are able to input their voice, the murals are not necessarily for them, and thus speak in a voice that is, in a sense, foreign to that of the neighborhood.

The idea of voice and its translation can be thought of in the more concrete mode of linguistics in the personal narrative I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala edited by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray. The story chronicles the life of Quiche woman Rigoberta Menchu and the atrocities she and her community faced during the Guatemalan Civil War. One the most remarkable highlights of Menchu’s story – her decision to learn Spanish to overcome her enemies – plays an important role also in the reader experience. The book was originally published in Spanish, maintaining the broken speak pattern and some Quiche words consistent with Menchu’s use of the language. However, later the book was translated into English, which was the version used in our class. While we’ll never know what was lost in the multiple translations of Menchu’s story, it is assumed that the power of reading her words in Spanish was lost upon the audience through our, albeit necessary, reliance on the English text. However, it is important to also note the positive repercussions of the translation of voice. While merely transcribing Menchu’s story, the story was published because of the work of Burgos-Debray. Without her to translate Menchu’s “voice” into text, we would likely never have heard the story of the Quiche people. In this way, Burgos-Debray’s role as an intermediary was invaluable in bringing to light a “voice” that deserved to be heard.  In the case of Menchu, I believe the advantages that come from sharing her story are enough to outweigh the potential loss that occurred during its translation.

I recognize that in no way is this paper an exhaustive exploration of each of these texts, or the wide-reaching subject of “voice”. However, I have attempted to put these three works in conversation with each other through the lens of translation, which is a topic we have yet to explore deeply in class. This has been beneficial in helping me to determine the importance of allowing each person’s authentic voice to be heard. Naturally, I continue to struggle with determining whether or not this translation is inherently problematic. If we are to take into account Elizabeth Ellsworth’s claim in Teaching Positions: Difference, Pedagogy and the Power of Address, what I call “translation” is an inevitable part of dialogue because “an exact fit between message and understanding […] is impossible”. (15) Does this mean then that the attempts at equalizing dialogue such as those by TLI and Mural Arts are in vain? While I recognize Ellsworth rejection of this possibility, I maintain the opinion that each voice has a certain sense of authenticity that must be respected, whether directly “understood” or not.

Works Cited

Cook-Sather, Alison. "Sound, Presence, and Power: "Student Voice" in Educational Research and Reform." Curriculum Inquiry 36.4 (2006): 359-90. Print.

Ellsworth, Elizabeth. “Teaching Positions: Difference, Pedagogy and the Power of Address.” New York: Teachers College Press (1997).



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